As the third anniversary of my mother’s death approaches, my feelings of grief are still remarkably vibrant. While the nature of my grief continues to change three years later, it has definitely not gone away and nor can I say that I am over it. My soul knows that grief is really a lifelong companion. To heal from our grief really means to cultivate a relationship with it over time. I would like to now explore the possibility of grief as an intimate conversation, that is, how it can befriend us and teach us to live deeper, more authentic lives.
A painful requirement of aging is the experience of bereavement. In the aftermath of death, grief cuts a gaping wound deep within our hearts. During this period of mourning, as we try to find our way through the emotional instability that we have fallen into, we are unable to imagine the hidden potential within our suffering.
There is more than just pain hidden with our grief.
Although one hears about such cases, there seems to be relatively little written about the impact on grown-up children of losing both parents within a short space of time.
– Jean Turbidy in Losing Elderly Parents
In a previous article I stated that, “The feeling of grief does not go away, but it does evolve.” I also indicated that at a primal level, grief and bereavement are necessary spiritual endeavours in life, rather than they are psychological events that need to be “fixed.”
None of this is to say that I no longer feel the poignancy, and indeed the heavy weight in my heart, over the loss of my parents. It is to say, however, that the nature of my grief has changed over time; and that I have changed in the presence of grief. In other words, there is a very real conversation on the edge taking place.
The capacity to allow ourselves to move into a deep and courageous conversation with grief is a core competency in living.
The Pain of Avoidance
Grief is a remarkably agile creature; it changes our orientation to time and place so that what was once familiar becomes suddenly strange and alien. Grief can wait patiently and silently within our inner landscape, and then suddenly reveal itself in a powerful storm of unexpected emotional release. This is known in psychological terms as a Sudden Temporary Upsurge of Grief (STUG). An upsurge refers to a rapid rise or swelling. The word surge captures images of waves and the flow of water increasing in capacity and voracity. An emotional upsurge of grief is an emotional tidal wave of loss rising from deep and secret places within.
Grief has both the capacity and voracity to surge over our entire consciousness in torrents of raw emotion. It can masterfully coordinate a vast deluge of emotions including, sadness, loss, regret, guilt, anger, anxiety, and fear that strand us on an island of despair. We do not merely cry when we are grieving; we literally move into the essence of our pain and suffering with an incredible and relentless intensity.
The longer we have attempted to suppress our grief, the greater the potential for becoming physically, mentally, and spiritually marooned in our own emotional backwater. Grief, and the rhythm of emotions it coordinates, does not intend to inflict harm; it is simply looking for authentic expression.
A conversation with grief is a perfectly normal and natural reaction to loss. Repressing grief only serves to prolong our suffering. Grief denied continues to intensify until we are no longer able to contain it. When we repress our grief we are failing to listen to its essential message. Sometimes we may believe that if we can prevent it from making itself visible, we are showing our strength and control. In fact, the repression of grief twists the knife within our wounded heart, and inhibits our ability to move through it.
We can also become mired in a bog of grief, and if we remain stuck over an extended period of time we run the risk of becoming victimized by it. Perhaps our grief devolves into a depression or leads us into a dark night.
The illusion of being stuck originates in the fear of moving closer to the source of our suffering. As uncomfortable as it may be, grief requires an authentic conversation with our being and it really desires to befriend us by helping to shed light on the reality of our existence.
Modern society has a remarkably trivial and immature approach to grief and bereavement. It seems as though the death of a loved one is almost viewed as a kind of inconvenience in the world of work.
We also lack a meaningful grammar for death and bereavement, so our discussions about the end of life are often cursory. One of the most powerful experiences anyone can have in life is suffering a loss due to death, and all loss is an invitation to grief. This kind of spiritual pain is a necessary, unavoidable, and natural condition of living, yet we seem to collectively fear meaningful conversation about it.
Avoidance is the child of fear. We have been conditioned to have a fear of difficult emotions, which fosters a delusion that difficult emotions require psychological or pharmaceutical intervention. In my own experience, the best method of working with my own grief was through a contemplative and spiritual approach that involved a great deal of writing; it did not require a psychological or medical intervention even though I experienced extreme discomfort at times.
We do not want to try and force our grief to go away, nor do we want to try and run and hide from it. Instead, we invite it into our presence in order to begin a real “conversation” with it.
Grief tells us, in absolute terms, that there is a great and powerful sadness in all life that is completely unavoidable. This does not mean that our entire experience of life must be sad, but it is to say that the experience of sadness and loss is perfectly normal and completely unavoidable.
We are entitled to far less than we might believe.
A Secret Conversation with Grief
Each one of us holds a secret and deeply intimate conversation with the nature of our human reality. When we are faced with a devastating loss, we experience a complete disruption of body, mind, and spirit. Grief breaks our inner conversation into disjointed fragments, and what we knew as reality has now become a stranger to us.
Our instincts for survival compel us to protect and remove ourselves from the source of this threat. This instinct is in fact unhelpful since it treats as grief as if it were an enemy; grief is ultimately a source of clarity.
To be certain, grief is profoundly uncomfortable and disruptive, but it is not an enemy to wage war against. To recoil from grief is to recoil from an essential and necessary part of our own being. We were meant to grieve over the death of a loved one. An uncomfortable and painful experience is not necessarily an unhelpful experience.
Grief asks us to have the conversation we don’t want to have, and that is the conversation about the stark reality of impermanence.
Death creates absence, but also gives birth to a new sense of presence. When someone dies we are immediately overwhelmed by a new realization of the deep mystery each one of us inhabits. We realize that being simply alive in this body roaming this place we call home is an incredible yet very fragile gift.
In the midst of grief, we also begin to see the delusional and vacuous aspects of the cold metallic social priorities and routines that tend to dominate our lives. When we feel the sadness of profound loss, our conditioning begins to deteriorate, and we begin to see the truth about life more clearly.
Our memories are immensely creative and expressive. It is impossible for us to remember any aspect of our past exactly as we experienced it. When we remember something, we recreate it in the present moment and therefore with our present consciousness.
Grief invigorates and stirs our memory; images of the death and dying of a loved one become fluidly interspersed with happy moments in earlier times and we are alone in our quest to seek consilience.
A sudden temporary upsurge of grief (STUG) is an intense phenomenon that literally washes through the imagination. That is to say, in the midst of a STUG we are thrust into a kind of alternate reality in which our imagination surges wildly and is completely intoxicated by the violent emotional release of our grief.
In one experience, my imagination brought me into close proximity with my mother immediately before she had passed away. I had already experienced her passing first hand, but now my grief-struck imagination seemed to demand that I feel her death more closely. In this dream-like state I found myself lying with her as she took her final breaths, yet we were not two separate bodies – in my imagination we had physically blended together. My mother and I had symbolically reunited in the moment of her death.
Grief makes a home in our body. Perhaps even you, as you read these words, feel a strange and mercurial presence stir within. I tend to feel the effects of grief in the heart area as the presence of heaviness and tension. This is the physical and spiritual home, source, and essence for my own grief. These physical feelings can cause our thoughts to become unsettled, and we may feel deep levels of sadness and emptiness, and confusion over how to proceed in life.
As we begin to hold an intimate conversation with the raw feeling of our own grief, we learn how to hold conversation with it, and we begin to sense the emergence of a new threshold in life.
The End of Grief
In the second half of life we inevitably experience an increasing frequency of loss in our lives. Perhaps it starts as a more removed or distant form of loss, such as the death of a favourite actor we watched on television as a child.
However, loss always moves closer and closer to us, and eventually begins to create ghosts out of the people who are integral to our own sense of identity. In other words, ageing is constantly bringing grief into closer proximity over time. And although there is a deep sense of sadness associated with this, it is also a perfectly normal and natural phenomenon in life.
The phrase the end of grief does not refer to a point in time when we stop feeling the effects of grief and it has somehow gone away. Once grief touches our lives, our task is not to eliminate it, but to integrate it into our being.
In this sense, the end of grief is a new understanding or perspective on living life in the here and now. True healing occurs when we fully inhabit our new life and begin a new conversation with grief in a reality that has been forever altered by the mysteries of death, dying, loss, grief and bereavement.